Senior doctors and researchers will tell an annual parliamentary drug policy summit on Wednesday it is “time to be courageous” and remove all criminal penalties for drug possession.
Criminologist Caitlin Hughes said there was “strong public support” for decriminalisation, which evidence suggests would save the public money without necessarily increasing drug use or crime.
“Decriminalisation removes criminal penalties for use and possession by law or in practice. It does not provide a legal avenue to obtain drugs,” the University of New South Wales drug policy specialist said.
Hughes said countries such as Portugal had removed criminal penalties for drug use nearly 15 years ago and seen drops in “drug-related harms, problematic drug use, burden on the police and prison system, and reductions in the social costs of responding to drugs”.
The summit is convened by the Greens leader Richard Di Natale, Liberal MP Sharman Stone and Labor’s Melissa Parke.
David Caldecott, a senior clinical lecturer in medicine at the Australian National University, will tell the event the last five years had seen “more radical shifts in [the] field than in the 50 years of the global war on drugs that preceded it”.
Australia was once an innovator – adopting safe-injecting rooms early, for example – but had since lost policy momentum in the area, he said.
Di Natale on Tuesday wrote the premiers of Queensland, Victoria and New South Wales calling for another measure, pill-testing at festivals, to be immediately implemented.
“Such an initiative … could provide people with valuable information to inform their decision-making, with the likely outcome that there would be fewer adverse events,” he wrote.
The former physician also called on police to be permitted to release data on the composition of drugs currently circulating, to be able to issue a “code red” when dangerous batches were on the street.
Professor Ann Roche, the director of an addiction education centre at Flinders University, said Australia had many successful drug policies, but the country was “at a point in history where we can take stock of what has worked and what has not”.
“We have the opportunity to rethink and renew some approaches that have not worked and consider scope for innovation,” she said. “It’s time to be courageous.”
The summit will also hear from New Zealand’s associate health minister, Peter Dunne, and the co-director of the RAND Drug Policy centre, Beau Kilmer.